Unfortunately the Canadian public and many policy makers have a very poor understanding of the charity sector.  I thought this piece from a speech by Helen Burstyn of the Ontario Trillium Foundation summarized the issue nicely.

“Challenge 2: Limited understanding of the sector
A critical challenge facing the not-for-profit and the institutional sectors is a lack of understanding among the public, political mandarins, media and even in our own ranks of what we do and the impact we have.

We have been conditioned by decades of asking for money, of losing staff, and of “just making do”.  We have been conditioned to think of ourselves as important only to those people we serve directly.  We have become accustomed to think of ourselves as supplicants rather than change makers. We have been conditioned to think of ourselves, frankly, as marginal.

When was the last time one of the key federal or provincial election issues was a not-for-profit issue?  Then ask yourself, “When was the last time a key election issue was a business issue?”  The answer, of course, is “When was the last election?”

I often think that if the corporate sector has its own section in the newspaper, so should we.  Why?  Because we are big business and we should have the clout, the profile and the influence of big business.  The not-for-profit sector is what I call the “unseen hand” in our economy.  It is a stabilizing, invigorating and entrepreneurial part of our society and one of the cornerstones of our overall fiscal well-being.

The Johns Hopkins Comparative Nonprofit Sector Project – sponsored in this country by Imagine Canada – found that our country’s not-for-profit sector accounts for 6.8 percent of the gross domestic product.  With the value of volunteer work included, that number rises to 8.5 percent of GDP.  That’s the equivalent of something in the neighbourhood of $80 billion.  By comparison, the automotive industry, which is still Canada’s largest manufacturing sector, represents just 2 percent of our GDP and employs, depending on how you count, between 100,000 and 150,000 people.  Which segment of our economy do you think got more press and assistance last year?

On the other hand, nonprofit and voluntary organizations employ 12 percent of our workforce.  That’s 995,000 people in Ontario alone.  Take out health care and education, and exclude part-time employees and we still account for 373,000 jobs in this province.  Ontario’s not-for-profit organizations employ the equivalent of every man, woman and child in Halifax.

And I’m not even counting volunteers.  Nearly 12 million Canadians volunteer their time in the not-for-profit sector. Economically, volunteer jobs not only have real value in terms of the work provided, but the volunteers also acquire skills and experience, making them more powerful economic players.

It’s almost impossible for me to overstate the sheer economic significance of the not-for-profit sector in Canada.  In fact, as a percentage of GDP, Canada’s not-for-profit sector is the second largest in the world, behind only the Netherlands.

Last year we conducted a series of what “Community Roundtables” based on feedback we’d received from not-for-profits from across the province. These sessions were planned to bring together representatives from charities and other not-for-profit organizations, as well as business groups and influencers within communities.

They sat down for a day together to talk about what would make their community a better place to live and work. For many this was the first time they had had this opportunity. While not ever session had the spectacular results most have done just what we hoped they would – brought a community together to talk about the future in a meaningful way. There are already several projects emerging in places like Sudbury, Sioux Lookout and Guelph and we expect to see more results from this effort. This is but one approach to raising the overall profile of sector contribution, at least at the community level.

We need to remember that.  We need to tell that story using numbers – just like any big business would do.  We need take our rightful place at the table of influence and we won’t get there if all we do is talk among ourselves.”

You can read the whole speech at http://www.trilliumfoundation.org/cms/en/sp_challenges.aspx